Bonner appears to have endured rigors of exile remarkably well

SHE stood silently for a moment while a stern-faced Soviet border guard checked her documents. ``Bonner, Yelena Georgiyevna.''

One of the last barriers -- barriers that had kept her in the Soviet Union for six years -- had fallen away.

Yelena Bonner, Soviet human rights campaigner and wife of her country's leading dissident figure, was finally on her way out.

``Please, I will not give an interview or a press conference,'' she told a small knot of reporters waiting for her in the airport corridors. The reason, she said, was that ``I want to come home.''

As she walked toward her departure gate, Mrs. Bonner explained that she had signed an agreement with Soviet authorities not to discuss her life in the Soviet Union or the health of her husband, dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov.

The unspoken but clear threat was that if she did, she would not be allowed to return to the Soviet Union.

And, she explained, ``I know you don't want to see Andrei Dmitriyevich left alone any more than I do.'' She was referring to her husband, who is staying behind in Gorky, the city to which they have both been exiled.

``I have to be able to come back,'' she implored. ``Please, don't imperil me.''

For the next three months, Bonner will be forced to wear that cloak of silence as she undergoes medical treatment in the West. Yet it is possible, based on conversations with her and others with whom she has spoken, to see something of the woman beneath that cloak.

Her need for medical care notwithstanding, it is clear that she has endured the rigors of exile and forced isolation remarkably well. She walks surefootedly, speaks clearly and animatedly. She is blunt -- within the limits imposed on her -- and clearly not intimidated.

She barely gave a sidelong glance to the three uniformed agents of the Soviet secret police flanking the entrance of the Alitalia jetliner that carried her to Rome.

As the DC-9 Super 80 lifted off from Moscow, she glanced out the window and pronounced the city beneath her ``pretty,'' its lights ``golden.'' And she told some of the passengers she was glad to hear them speaking Italian -- and she looked forward to being in their country.

While there, she said, she would like to meet Pope John Paul II, former President Sandro Pertini, and Prime Minister Bettino Craxi -- people she credits with helping her gain permission to leave.

She also credits the press. She checked a friend who wanted to shoo reporters away, reminding her that ``without their help, we would not exist.''

Still, Bonner was at pains to follow the terms set by the Soviets when they issued her visa in November: that she remain silent once in the West.

``When I got permission to leave,'' she explained, ``they asked for me, in writing, not to give interviews, press conferences, or to meet with representatives of the mass media.'' She restricted herself only to the most general comments about her health and her trip to the West.

She said that she had not received ``modern'' health care in her own country, and was thus seeking it in the West. On the subject of her husband, however, she was publicly mute. Those who have spoken to her privately, however, indicate that Mr. Sakharov's health has faltered during five years of exile.

What has apparently been most troubling to the couple, however, is the sense of imposed isolation in Gorky, cut of from family, friends, and the outside world.

Gorky is a city closed by the authorities to foreign visitors, and direct dialing in and out of the country was suspended by the government more than three years ago. Until a call was allowed through last month, the couple had been unable to speak to their relatives in the United States for nearly 11/2 years.

The fact that Bonner is now in the West is notable. It could mark a relative softening on human rights issues by Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev -- though heretofore there have been no signs of such relaxation. Or it could mark a tactical shift to deflect criticism at last month's superpower summit.

Or it could be that, despite the Kremlin's efforts to push him from the public mind, Andrei Sakharov -- even in exile -- remains a powerful force with which the Kremlin must reckon. Practically every Western government has called for his release, and Mr. Gorbachev has repeatedly faced questioning about his fate.

Bonner, according to those who have talked to her, flatly denied that the Soviets held out the possibility of her husband's eventual release. Asked if he, too, might one day travel to the West, she shook her head from side to side, according to one onlooker.

Still, his presence seems to loom not far behind her. People who have spoken with her recount some of the couple's parting words as Bonner prepared to leave Gorky for Moscow and the West.

``I may not see you again,'' Sakharov supposedly said. ``This may be the last time.''

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